A haven for buccaneers to trade, drink and plan raids, Port Royal has been immortalised on screen in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the town where Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is first introduced. Destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1692, this hedonistic playground was sunk to the bottom of the ocean, its treasures lost for over 300 years. But now, the secrets of this fascinating town are set to be revealed as new research by Nottingham underwater archaeologist Dr Jon Henderson uses state-of-the-art technology to survey the submerged settlement.
Two thirds of the city was wiped out when Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake, quicksand and tsunami on 7 June 1692. Showcased in National Geographic documentary Drain the Sunken Pirate City, Dr Henderson's research reveals for the first time what lies on the seabed, using sonar scans to create a three-dimensional digital model which will provide new insights into the sunken ruins.
"Port Royal is a true sunken city," said Dr Henderson. "But not only that, it is a catastrophic site. It went down so quickly that it was sealed in a moment in time. It's sometimes called the Pompeii of the New World. The earthquake captured Port Royal at its prime – everything people were using now lies sealed under the silt in Jamaica's Kingston Harbour.
Port Royal is the only sunken city in the Americas – that we know of – and it was the English centre in the Caribbean in the 17th Century.
The English mercantile capital of the New World, Port Royal was an important and wealthy centre for trade and commerce for the entire West Indies. Supporting a bid for UNESCO World Heritage status, Dr Henderson's findings will reinforce the town's global significance, helping to conserve the site for the future.
"The Jamaican government have wanted to put in this bid for some times, but to do so they have to have a plan of the site itself," said Dr Henderson. "This has been particularly tricky due to the poor visibility of the site. It's only now that new technology has allowed us to go there and carry out this survey.
"The site is covered in silt and redeposited coral, so it's buried under around 6 to 10 feet of deposit. This is great from an archaeological point of view because a lot of the site will be sealed, meaning it is in excellent condition, but it limits what can be seen.
"New technology is opening up submerged archaeology for the first time. Now we can do photo-realistic 3D surveys of what is actually under the sea and show it to people, which was not possible before. Previously we could only rely on drawings, photos and video, but now we're at a point where people who have never seen a submerged site – unless they were a diver – will be able to see exactly how these sites appear on the seabed. This technology is key to raising awareness about the importance of underwater cultural heritage."